Argued February 12, 2014.
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF3-21612-09). (Hon. Michael Ryan, Trial Judge).
Craig N. Moore for appellant.
John P. Gidez, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant United States Attorney, were on the brief, for appellee.
Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and REID, Senior Judge.
Reid, Senior Judge :
A jury convicted appellant, Melvin Andrade, of the lesser-included offense of assault with a dangerous weapon, aggravated assault while armed, assault with significant bodily injury, and carrying a dangerous weapon. Mr. Andrade challenges his convictions mainly on the basis of the prosecutor's negative comments about his use of an interpreter and the trial court's alleged failure to protect his right to an interpreter and a fair trial. Because we conclude that the trial court properly handled questions and comments by the prosecutor that appeared to express her personal opinion about Mr. Andrade's veracity, and that tended to denigrate and disrespect Mr. Andrade's right to and use of an interpreter to understand the proceedings against him, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
The government presented evidence through several witnesses, including the victim, Elmer Cabrera. The evidence showed that Mr. Andrade and other young men, including S.T. and his uncle, were involved in a confrontation and altercation on September 12, 2009, with Mr. Cabrera and two brothers, Victor and Juan Carlos Rodriguez. The confrontation took place because S.T. had tried to take Mr. Cabrera's cell phone from him on September 9, 2009, and Mr. Cabrera had complained to a nearby policeman that the young men wanted to attack him, to take his phone and to rob him; the police stopped S.T. and another young man on the same day.
The confrontation on September 12 began when S.T. asked why Mr. Cabrera had approached the police on September 9 and threatened to " finish" him. Mr. Cabrera thought S.T. had a knife, and prepared to defend himself by taking off his jacket and belt. S.T. took the belt and Mr. Cabrera began to run. S.T. shouted, " stab him, stab him." Mr. Andrade stabbed Mr. Cabrera in the neck and arm. Dr. Juliet Lee, a general surgeon and trauma surgeon at George Washington University Hospital, treated Mr. Cabrera on September 12, 2009. She determined that he was stabbed in the neck/chest area, " just to the right of the sternal notch." Both of his lungs had collapsed and he was admitted to the intensive care unit.
During his testimony, Mr. Andrade stated that he was twenty-one years of age, was born in El Salvador, had journeyed to the United States at age fifteen, and received his high school diploma from the Bell Multicultural High School. Before trial began, the trial judge inquired about Mr. Andrade's need for an interpreter. The government announced that it had its own interpreter so that it could communicate with its own witnesses. Defense counsel announced that he did not need an interpreter to communicate with Mr. Andrade. The trial judge concluded that an interpreter was needed so that Mr. Andrade would " understand what transpires in the courtroom," and also for witnesses who only spoke Spanish. The deputy clerk announced that two interpreters had been ordered -- one for the witnesses and one for Mr. Andrade. The next morning, the trial judge revealed that he had spoken with the head of Superior Court interpreting who indicated that Mr. Andrade was not using the interpreter. Defense counsel explained that " [a]lthough he does speak English, [Mr. Andrade] believes his English is not good enough to understand everything that is going on in the court and the terms and the language." Therefore, " [h]e prefers to have a Spanish interpreter" even if he did not use the interpreter consistently. The judge responded that he was " not trying to penalize [Mr. Andrade] in any way," but was " just trying to make sure that [he] shepherd[ed] the court's resources appropriately."
During the direct examination of Victor Rodriguez on August 17, the interpreter interrupted to explain to the judge that Mr. Rodriguez had used the word " navaja," which has several meanings. The judge suggested that the prosecutor might want to make a more specific inquiry concerning Mr. Rodriguez' use of the word, and the prosecutor asked for a description of the knife that had been referenced. Later, the interpreter who relieved the first interpreter informed the court that the previous interpreter had initially and incorrectly interpreted a word as meaning " punch" rather than " to prick or to stab," before correcting the error. Near the end of the day, the prosecutor informed the trial judge that the interpreter had not fully translated a response by Mr. Rodriguez to a question on cross-examination. The judge informed the prosecutor that she could handle the matter during rebuttal. The prosecutor brought out the full response during rebuttal examination.
When Mr. Andrade testified, the interpreter interrupted several times to ask for clarification or repetition. During a bench conference, the judge and both counsel agreed that there were problems with the interpretation. The judge commented that the current interpreter was " very good" and that he had asked the interpreter's office not to permit the previous day's interpreter to return. The judge ...